For the past several months on Monday evenings I have been celebrating part of the Mass (from the Offertory onwards) “with my back to the people” (actually not many people!). This way of celebrating is known as Mass versus or ad Orientem. Of course, the Traditional Latin Mass is always celebrated like this, and it is clear that Pope Benedict XVI would be happy if more people celebrated the New Mass ad Orientem.
The phrase ad Orientem means “towards the East” or “towards the Rising Sun”. Jesus Christ is the Rising Sun, and from the earliest Christian times the faithful believed that the Second Coming of Jesus would be from the East, from the direction of the Rising Sun: “The coming of the Son of Man will be like lightning striking in the East and flashing far into the West” (Matthew 24.27). So there is evidence that Christians made a point of facing the East when they said their prayers. And from the time they were able to build churches for their Eucharistic services (the Mass), they built them so that wherever possible the celebrant was able to face the East whilst he offered the sacrifice. There is also evidence that, in the Roman basilicas like St Peter’s, where the Pope seems to be facing the people anyway, that the congregation would all turn their backs to the celebrant and face the East during the words “Habemus ad Dominum”, which we translate as “We have lifted them up to the Lord”, but which also means “We have turned towards the Lord.”
Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in a forward to a book entitled Turning Towards The Lord: “There is nothing in the (Vatican) Council text about turning altars towards the people; that point is raised only in post-conciliar instructions.” In 2002 the Roman Missal for the New Mass includes the words: “It is better for the main altar to be constructed away from the wall so that one can easily walk around the altar and celebrate facing the people which is desirable wherever possible”. This applied to new churches , and, says the Cardinal, did not imply an obligation but only made a suggestion. By 2002, of course, many churches had been renovated (wreckovated, say some) at great cost both financial and architectural. However, says the Cardinal, even if a priest celebrates versus populum (towards the people) he should always be oriented versus Deum per Jesum Christum (turned towards God through Jesus Christ). In other words, the Mass is an action which is performed by the celebrant, not towards the people, but towards God.
Pope Benedict would dearly love to see more reverence and respect brought back to the celebration of the Mass. But he is a cautious man and he is unlikely to lay down any hard and fast rules which might lead to a schism in the Church. Even so, I would not be surprised if he had something to say about Mass ad Orientem sometime soon.